Have you ever stopped to wonder what’s so important about the two wilderness feedings? For some reason, all four gospel writers chose to include the feeding of the 5,000 and two of the four cover Jesus feeding the 4,000. On top of this, we just read Mark’s account of how Jesus asked the disciples if they missed the point of these miracles and His questions point to the number of leftover baskets as being a key clue. What is going on here? I’ve asked this question for many years and, while I sit with the dumbfounded disciples for most of it, I think I understand a part of it. It seems to me that these two miracles combine to form a wordless sermon. To hear it requires that we understand some Jewish background.
In Deuteronomy 18:15; 17-18, God promised to one day raise up another prophet who will be like Moses. “I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.” This book closes with a statement about how no prophet like Moses has ever arisen in Israel, one whom God knew face to face, who showed God’s mighty power or performed awesome deeds in the sight of all Israel (34:10-12).
This prophet is the one the people had in mind with they asked John the Baptist to tell them who he was (John 1:21). The people knew that when this prophet came, he would perform many amazing miracles and speak the very words of God to them. And in the same way that Moses acted as their king, people expected that this prophet would become their king.
Jesus was certainly doing many miracles, but how could a person tell if Jesus was the Prophet God had promised? One of the most amazing things God did for the people during their 40 years of desert wandering was to give them their daily bread in the form of manna. This was such a special provision for them that they actually took a jar of it and preserved it inside the Ark of the Covenant. With this as background, let’s look at the two wilderness feedings.
The fact that this story is repeated by different writers and that Jesus asked questions about it (Mark 8:18-21) makes it clear that Jesus intended to communicate something significant by His actions in these two feedings. While I don’t think I know all He was saying, let me unpack a little of what I do know.
First, check out the locations: the 5,000 were fed on the Jewish side of the lake while the 4,000 were fed on the Gentile side. Jesus had compassion for both crowds; He cares about both Jews and Gentiles! With the 5,000 He ordered them into groups and had them sit down before He fed them. Sound like anyone else you know about? Didn’t Moses order the Israelites to camp in groups before the manna from heaven was given to them?
This connection to Moses was not lost on the Jewish audience. After eating their fill, John 6 records that the people who had been fed wanted to force Jesus to become their king because they had concluded that He was the prophet like Moses who God promised would come (John 6:14-15). Knowing that “to listen” was to obey, our Lord’s words to listen sound a lot like Moses, or in the context of Jesus’ day, a king. Clearly, Jesus was using more than just words to speak a message here. But there is more.
Jesus makes a big deal about the number of baskets collected after each meal. Some have suggested that this was just to emphasize abundance, but I think there is something more specific going on here. In the story of the 5,000, the word for basket (kophinos) referred to a small basket that held a person’s provisions. Twelve of these baskets were left over. How many servants were busy feeding the crowd, maybe even too busy to eat (think of 12 disciples serving anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 people, all sitting in groups of 50 to 100. The disciples had to move quickly to get the food from Jesus to the people.)? Hmmm, seems to me that the disciples’ needs were supplied for as well. Even when you serve sacrificially, Jesus will meet your need.
In the story of the 4,000, the word for basket (spuris) had to do with a much larger container, the very same kind of basket used to lower Paul over the Damascus wall (Acts 9:25). Seven of these filled with food would be a lot of food, enough to feed other groups! The question, then, is what did the number seven represent? I don’t have clarity on this one, but the two options that stand out most to me would be the seven known nations of the world at that time (this Gentile audience represented the other Gentile nations) or the number for fullness and completion (like seven days in a week). No matter what it meant, we do know Jesus intended it to mean something important. It was another message spoken without words.
Finally, did you notice the response of both the Jewish and Gentile crowds? Both stories say they were “satisfied.” In Jeremiah 31:25, God promises to refresh the weary and satisfy the faint. Just who is this Jesus that satisfied the crowds of people who represented the entire world? What is His identity? Is He the prophet like Moses…or maybe something even more?
So, the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod is the teaching that enters our lives and, like yeast in dough, influences the entire loaf. The Pharisees and Herod had a different view of God’s kingdom and what it meant to rule. Jesus is saying, “Realize who I am and listen to me….not them. Do you still not see or understand who it is that is talking to you now?” (Mark 8:17-18).
Our Lord’s admonition to His disciples to tune their ears and open their eyes is also a word for us today. Who do we listen to? Whose voice is given influence in our lives, yeast in our dough? And when it comes to God’s word to us, His Kingdom and messages of love and compassion are not limited to words alone. Every day He speaks and displays His truth and character in ways we may not hear or see. May God give us all the ears to hear and the eyes to see the wordless messages He has for us today.
Listening and keeping my eyes open with you,